Just like last season, the Big Ten Conference volleyball championship may come down to the final hour of the regular season. And just like last year, Nebraska has a chance to win the championship.
This is the final week of the Big Ten season, and if Nebraska avoids losing to two teams the Huskers have already swept this season, Nebraska will be Big Ten champions or co-champions. The fifth-ranked Huskers are on a season-best 11-match win streak.
The Huskers travel to play at Northwestern on Wednesday, and then on Saturday host Iowa on the final night of the regular season. Penn State has the same 17-1 conference record as the Huskers but will have a more challenging final week. The top-ranked Nittany Lions travel to play No. 11 Wisconsin and No. 8 Minnesota on back-to-back nights this weekend.
If two or more teams have the same conference record at the end of the season, they are co-champions regardless of the head-to-head results during the season. That’s because some teams play each other twice, and others just once.
It’s a week like this one that shows just how intense playing in the Big Ten is, Nebraska senior setter Kelly Hunter said.
“It’s literally coming down to probably the last night, if everything works out for us,” Hunter said. “It really shows how tough the Big Ten is, and it shows how much you have to be on every single night, because any night anyone can beat anyone. We’ve seen some crazy upsets this year, and some other tough games. It’s pretty typical that it comes down to the end.”
Some of those upsets include unranked Illinois, led by former NU assistant coach Chris Tamas, beating Minnesota last week. And unranked Ohio State beating Wisconsin earlier in this month. The Huskers’ only conference loss came at Wisconsin, when the Badgers were ranked 11th. So Nebraska has avoided the big upsets that took other top teams out of the conference title race. Hunter thinks the Huskers have avoided a bad conference loss so far by being focused on one match at a time.
“If we’re thinking ahead to maybe who we play Saturday, you could drop off on a Friday, but for us we’re going out there every single point of every single match and giving it our all for that one point,” Hunter said.
When the Huskers won the Big Ten championship last season, it also came down to the final hour of the season. Nebraska beat Michigan in four sets at the Devaney Sports Center to clinch at least a share of the Big Ten title. But about 45 minutes after the Huskers’ match ended, Minnesota beat Wisconsin in five sets, making the Huskers the outright champions. Nebraska finished in first place with an 18-2 record, with Minnesota and Wisconsin each one match back.
Nebraska coach John Cook is focused but excited that the Huskers are again in position to have a meaningful finish to the conference season.
“I’m fired up that we’re in a position to play for a lot this week, and our team has done a nice job of getting to this point, and now we got to finish,” Cook said.
First, Cook said, the Huskers have to find a way to beat Northwestern on Wednesday. And that match will take the Huskers’ out of their routine because it’s being played in a high school gym at Evanston Township High School while Welsh-Ryan Arena has a $110 million renovation.
Cook talked to Tamas to get a feel for what it’s like to play at the high school gym. And to prepare for the smaller gym, the Huskers moved Tuesday’s practice from the Devaney Sports Center to Mabel Lee Hall on the UNL campus.
“Maybe it’s worth a point,” said Cook of moving practice, in another example of the thought that goes into winning each match, even if the opponent is 12th in the Big Ten standings.